This is Eric's house: a narrow, two-story farmhouse with weathered, gray siding. He bought it three years ago when it was still boarded up, when the weeds in the front yard spilled onto the cracked sidewalk and obscured the front porch. For three years he's been remodeling the house. He cut down the weeds, covered the caved-in front steps with a plywood ramp, and replaced some of the broken windows. He bought a couch, a bookshelf, and a refrigerator. He placed those things in a front room, and some bare twin mattresses in the three bedrooms upstairs.
I come here often on my way home from school. I don't admit it yet, but I come here for the view - for the view from the corner of the sofa. One arm of my view extends through the large window and onto the street. I peek over the top edge of my book and watch the people of Ivanhoe pass through this frame: slow-moving white Volvos and predatory police cars and Toke - the neighborhood junkie - making the rounds for spare change and people who got lost and people taking shortcuts and barefoot women waving rags at their men.
Damon is one of the boys on Wabash. He's one of the boys who hangs out on Eric's front porch and takes cans of soda out of the fridge and uses the lawnmower on weekends to make some cash. It's about 4 p.m. on a school day. I'm reading Zinn by the front window when Damon pulls up on his bike. He lets it collapse in the front yard; he runs, leaps onto the porch and throws open the front door.
"Dang! You look skinnier every time I see you," he says. He is flirting.
"How was school?" I ask.
"Wouldn't know," he says.
"They kicked you out again?"
He doesn't respond. We hear creaking from above, the slow beat of Eric's boot on the stairs as he descends from the attic. I am looking at Damon and Damon is speaking with his hands, his finger; it pulls the trigger. I sit on the couch and he stands in the doorway, pulling the imaginary trigger, sending one, two, three bullets into my chest and laughing through his teeth as the weight of the boot bears down on this one, furnished room.
I met Eric earlier that summer. I sat on the back deck of a William Jewell dormitory, feeling tired and stiff. The light from indoors barely shone on the other girls my age. They giggled and tried to salsa. They stepped on each other's toes and I began to drift off. Eric sat down next to me, and I waited for him to say something - to comment on the girls, to ask me how I was doing or how I had come to sit on this deck. He did not.
We would spend a lot of time saying nothing. We sat on the front lawn of the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art and said nothing, just looking out at the white sheet walls of the new wing. We stood at the base of the old KCTV transmitter tower on Union Hill and said nothing, just staring up at the metal beams strung with Christmas lights. And when Eric first drove me to Wabash Avenue and 33rd Street, we said nothing because the fallen-in roof and the mattress poking out of a second-story window and the neighbors staring and Toke running alongside us and knocking on the driver-side window had said it already.
What I learned I learned by looking; by getting quiet and listening in.
Eric grew up in foster-care in southeastern Missouri. His mother abandoned him as a baby, married a white, Pentecostal Christian and had three beautiful daughters. Eric changed high schools eleven times - dropped out of the University of Kansas after two years, and made fast money fixing computers. Over nachos at El Pueblito, the waitresses called him "Leo," and I didn't ask why. He bought this beat-up house on Wabash Avenue, and left the door unlocked for the neighborhood runaways and the boys bored enough and angry enough to wield knives and guns. He called them his gentlemen.
The other arm - the other angle of my view from the corner of the couch stretches northwest, into the recess of rooms. I realize now that I filled those rooms in my mind. I filled them with dishes and canned food in kitchen cabinets and all the little securities that made a home.
There was the time I brought over breakfast. I brought flour and eggs and milk and syrup for waffles. But the stove didn't work so we all went out - Eric and Damon and Damon's friends and I. We all went out to Arthur Bryant's at Brooklyn Avenue and East 17th. The gentlemen ordered onion rings and chicken-on-bun and pork-on-bun and got sick from giant cups of blue slush.
I am thinking of Damon's blue teeth. I remember Damon's teeth and the sound of the boot and the one, two, three bullets in my chest.
"Let's talk," Eric says to Damon, standing over him at the foot of the stairs.
Damon pretends not to hear. He goes to the bookshelf, takes down the one book - The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes - and opens to the title page.
"Dee. Let's talk."
Damon shuffles outside without looking up. Eric follows, and the two of them stand at opposite ends of the porch, talking. I can see them, but I hear only muffled sounds. I look between the space of their two bodies at a pair of girls across the street, in front of St. Mary's Congregational Church with the rubbed-out sign and the kicked-in door. The girls take turns balancing on the curb like it's a rope pulled taut between two trees.
The gap closes. Damon lunges at Eric, flinging the book into the far corner of the porch. I sit curled at one end of the couch, practicing how to stay quiet behind the glass. I think about the book The Collected Poems of Langston Hughes - its angle of incidence with the floor; the two bodies - Eric's tall, rooted figure; Damon's puffed up chest, the wishbone tendon at the nape of his neck, the teeth; and where we are - Wabash Avenue and 33rd Street, Ivanhoe, East Kansas City.
The house on Wabash sits on a corner; between a vacant, overgrown lot and the southern boundary of a neighbor's chain-link fence. Gentlemen pass through the house in a steady file - in through the front door and out through the back, or in through the back door and out through the front. Damon takes off down Wabash. Damon's tendons and teeth walk north on Wabash, east on Linwood and I don't see beyond that.
I have come here for the view. On New Year's Eve, I sit across from Eric at El Pueblito on the Boulevard. We are saying nothing, just eating quickly so we can disappear before midnight. Eric stares off at the corner television - at the footage of Times Square - and I look at him from across the table like I've learned to look in on Wabash. Any closer and I can't read the details; any farther away and I can't see at all.